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Photo of power lines
More Sky and Trees, Less Steel and Wire

by Craig Canine

You've never heard of Vickie VanZandt, but the chief engineer of the Pacific Northwest grid is trying to bring America's creaking electrical transmission system into the twenty-first century -- while conserving energy and preserving the lush landscape.

Vickie VanZandt was planting azaleas in her garden on August 10, 1996, when the phone rang. "It was a Saturday afternoon, and really hot," she recalls. Her hands were covered with a mix of dirt and sweat as she picked up the receiver. She recognized the voice of one of her employees, a normally unflappable dispatcher who worked in the transmission control room of the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) in Vancouver, Washington. He was practically shouting into the phone.

"We've got a problem," he said. "The interties have gone down!" The interties are an 846-mile-long, 500,000-volt system of power lines linking hydroelectric generators on the Columbia River to southern California. They are also one of the biggest electrical transmission pipelines in the United States.

"We were sending a lot of power to the south through the interties -- 7,400 megawatts," enough electricity to supply more than seven million homes, VanZandt explains. "And my operator tells me they're totally out of service.

Photo of Vickie VanZandtAt first, we didn't know what had happened," she continues. "The first report said it was sabotage. But then we learned the whole thing started when some of our power lines sagged into a few overgrown trees. We put the lights out at the Republican National Convention in San Diego! More than 10 million people lost power. It was horrible," she says, wincing at the memory.

As she recalls the day's events, VanZandt stands near a map of the North American power grid. The map, showing a venous network of 200,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines, is divided into three distinct sections, known as interconnects. The largest is the Eastern Interconnect, which covers two-thirds of the continental United States and Canada, from the Atlantic coast to the Rocky Mountains. The Western Interconnect, also huge, extends from the Rockies westward to the Pacific. And then there's Texas, which has a comparatively small interconnect all to itself (the slogan "Don't mess with Texas" apparently extends to the realm of electrical infrastructure). VanZandt runs a good-size chunk of the Western Interconnect in the Pacific Northwest.

As vice president of transmission operations and planning for the Bonneville Power Administration, she bears direct responsibility for 15,000 miles of transmission lines and about 250 substations spread across an area larger than France. This territory, in which the BPA transmits and sells the electricity generated predominantly by 31 federally owned hydroelectric dams and one nuclear plant on the Columbia River system, covers all or part of eight western states: Idaho, Washington, Oregon, western Montana, and small chunks of Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and northernmost California. The 1996 blackout demonstrated that a seemingly trivial event on VanZandt's turf can have consequences that ripple far beyond it. In a variation of the fabled "butterfly effect" from chaos theory -- the idea that the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil could set off a tornado in Texas -- the modern electrical grid provides proof that a filbert tree in remote western Oregon can disrupt a convention of Republicans in San Diego.

It was with a sense of déjà vu, therefore, that VanZandt learned about the events leading up to last summer's blackout on August 14, the worst power outage in North American history. It, too, was triggered by a few errant tree branches on a hot summer's day. Her experience with major grid disruptions in 1996, and the aggressive steps she had taken since then to see that such a thing would never happen again in the Pacific Northwest, made her a natural choice to serve on the technical team that investigated the causes of the 2003 blackout, which left 50 million people without electricity, from Detroit to Toronto to New York City.

The North American power grid -- the infrastructure upon which all others rely -- may be one of the supreme engineering accomplishments of the twentieth century, but most of it was designed in the 1950s and 1960s and built before the era of the microprocessor. As last summer's blackout demonstrated all too starkly, the grid is showing its age. The Bush administration, members of Congress, and the power industry have all advocated building more and bigger power lines. This approach -- let a thousand towers of steel bloom -- is also typical among VanZandt's colleagues, the electrical engineers who operate and maintain the grid.

But Vickie VanZandt is hardly typical. She breaks the mold in at least two ways. First, she's the über-linesman of one of the largest power-line systems on the continent, and she's a woman -- one of the few to hold such a prominent engineering position in the transmission industry. Second, and more consequential for the awe-inspiring landscape of the Pacific Northwest, she understands that power-line corridors cut ugly scars across the face of the land. Building new ones turns long swaths of wildlife habitat into linear construction sites, with all the attendant clearcutting of trees, construction of access roads, erosion of soils, and siltation of waterways. This, she believes, should be done only when other options are exhausted. She's unique among the nation's highest-ranking transmission engineers in supporting something known around the BPA as "non-wires solutions" -- ways of squeezing better performance from the grid without throwing more steel and aluminum in the air.

"You've got to keep in mind who we're serving here," VanZandt says. "The Northwest isn't just a place, it's a lifestyle. Folks here like their coffee, they like their clean air, they like their fish, and they like their beautiful mountains. So, environmentally, you want to have a light footprint. You don't want to carve through these pretty green trees if you don't have to."

Bush Science
The Salamander Man
Saline Solutions

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Craig Canine, a former editor and writer for Newsweek, often writes about technology from his home in Palo Alto, California. His work has also appeared in The Atlantic, Reader's Digest, and Discover.

Photos: Brian Smale

OnEarth. Summer 2004
Copyright 2004 by the Natural Resources Defense Council